Psychology Yesterday

Stories from the behavioral past

The "Genovese Syndrome"

A tragic story that refuses to go away, despite it being largely untrue.

On March 13, 1964, an event took place in New York City that had a transformative effect on the lives of many Americans, especially women. In Kew Gardens, Queens, a young woman named Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was brutally murdered. Hundreds of murders took place in New York City every year, of course, but this one was like no other. 38 neighbors had ignored Genovese’s screams for help as she was stabbed to death, it was reported, this the part of the story that made this particular murder stand out. As news about the circumstances surrounding the murder spread, the horrific crime quickly took a back seat to what New Yorkers and all Americans believed to be an even bigger, sadder tragedy. The event became seen as a disturbing sign of the times, a prime example of how the city and the nation were changing in the mid-1960s, and not for the better. New Yorkers, and those living in other big cities, were “apathetic,” many Americans concluded, unwilling to help neighbors or strangers in need. All kinds of experts offered theories on why what had taken place did, with none of these theories really answering the fundamental question. Over the decades, the case took on a larger and more significant role to the point where it came to represent one of the less appealing aspects of basic human behavior. To this day, the event is often cited as an essential principle of group psychology (the “Genovese syndrome”), and an unfortunate consequence of modern urban life.

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The problem, however, is that much of the story is simply not true. Few if any neighbors knew what was taking place, it was later learned, making the murder of Kitty Genovese certainly tragic but not that much different from the 635 others that would took place that year in the city. Newspaper reports instantly canonized the event, however, and attempts to set the record straight over the past fifty years have been largely unable to change history. Taking place just a few months after the JFK assassination, the murder became accepted as another iconic event symbolizing our collective loss of innocence and the beginning of a new, darker chapter of American history. Americans, especially those living in large cities like New York, had lost their moral footing, many decided, our civic values not what they once had been. The murder both reflected and helped to shape the transformation of New York and the United States in 1964 as each became increasingly fragmented and divided along social lines, especially those of gender and race. Women across the country would ultimately utilize the murder of Kitty Genovese and the events that surrounded it as a basis for empowerment, this perhaps the most enduring legacy of the tragedy.

 

Larry Samuel, Ph.D., is a cultural historian and the founder of Culture Planning LLC.

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